Who Has The Edge

Northwestern is looking to get back in the win column, and they face a tough challenge in the 25th-ranked Penn State Nittany Lions. Can the Wildcats pull out a win on homecoming? PurpleWildcats.com takes you inside the matchup to find who has the edge.

When Northwestern has the ball

This will be a strength-on-strength matchup, as Northwestern's offense is far ahead of its defense and Penn State's defense is far ahead of its offense.

The Nittany Lions' defense has exceeded expectations this season, and despite an early-season setback against Alabama, the unit rebounded with a big game against Iowa, in which it held the Hawkeyes to three points—for reference, Northwestern gave up 41 points to Iowa.

Penn State has an outstanding rush defense, which shouldn't have much of a problem shutting down the NU running backs. However, the matchup between the defensive front seven and Northwestern's outside rushing attack is more intriguing.

PSU has yet to face a solid spread offense this season and it hasn't faced a quarterback as dynamic as Dan Persa.

Persa has been solid this year since coming back from injury, but he has to avoid the dangerous plays, like the pick six against Iowa, that he wouldn't have given up last year.

The utilization of Kain Colter will also be interesting in this game, as he played quarterback, running back and wide receiver against Iowa and was arguably the offensive MVP of the game. His quickness could create a mismatch for Penn State's run defense.

The NU offense and the PSU defense are two of the best of their respective units in the Big Ten. It's too close to call who will come out on top at this point, but this matchup should be fun to watch.

Edge: Even

When Penn State has the ball

While the NU offense vs. the PSU defense should be an outstanding matchup, the NU defense vs. the PSU offense will be brutal to watch.

Penn State is continuing to prove the old cliché that if you have two quarterbacks you really have no quarterbacks, and even in the Nittany Lions' best games their quarterbacks have struggled.

Sophomores Rob Bolden and Matt McGloin are switching off at quarterback, and both have been equally bad, which is why the quarterback competition has dragged out for over a year.

The run game has been solid, as Silas Redd had a big day against Iowa, but PSU has been way too one-dimensional, which means it won't blow anyone out this year.

The Northwestern defense has seemingly taken a step back from a bad end to the 2010 season, giving up an average of 40.3 points in three Big Ten games.

The good news for the Wildcats is that the Penn State passing offense may be just as bad as the NU secondary. The run defense hasn't been awful this season, so it should be able to at least handle Redd, especially if the Nittany Lions' passing game sputters—that's quite likely—and it can turn it's focus to the running game.

Edge: Even

Special Teams

The Northwestern special teams have been the Achilles heel for the Wildcats in recent years and this season has been the same story.

Kicker Jeff Budzien is just three-for-six on field goals this season, including one-for two in the Iowa game, making and missing 47-yarders.

The punting game has been the most disappointing special teams position for Northwestern, as Brandon Williams has been extremely inconsistent—he had 11-and-27-yard punts against Illinois.

The kick return game has been decent, as Venric Mark had some nice returns against Iowa, but the kickoff game has struggled—the opening kickoff against Iowa went out-of-bounds.

The Penn State kicking game has been hit-and-miss this year. Anthony Fera is nine-for-10 on field goals, but Evan Lewis and Sam Ficken are a combined two-for-seven.

The Nittany Lions' return game is very dangerous and returner Chaz Powell returned a kick 92 yards for a touchdown last week against Purdue.

Expect Northwestern to have the inferior special teams unit once again.

Edge: Penn State

Coaching

Pat Fitzgerald is widely considered one of the best young coaches in college football, but his play-calling and motivational skills have been called into question during Northwestern's four-game losing streak.

There have been questionable calls in the clutch—specifically options on fourth down—and the defense has struggled with communication, which is unacceptable this late in the season.

Fitzgerald continues to keep a positive attitude, but he has to come through with results before the criticism starts piling on.

Penn State coach Joe Paterno is more at the games for moral support than anything these days, chiming in with advice every once in a while, and his coordinators do most of the work.

The Nittany Lions coaching staff has been solid this year, especially defensive coordinator Tom Bradley, who improved his unit after a shaky 2010.

Edge: Even

Intangibles

Any team riding a four-game losing streak and a 2-4 record is going to have its spirits down, but Northwetsern's coaches claim their team is focused heading into Saturday.

The Wildcats have been in every game this year, but have failed to come through in the clutch. That has to change for them to get as win, as this will likely be another close matchup.

Penn State has been surprising this season, coming in with a 6-1 record, but nearly all of the Nittany Lions' wins have been nailbiters.

It's hard to give Northwestern an intangible edge given the four-game losing streak, but Ryan Field should have a great atmosphere for its Homecoming game, at night game on the Big Ten Network.

Edge: Even

Prediction

One of the reasons for Northwestern's loss last week was that Iowa biggest strength—the passing game—was facing the Wildcats' biggest weakness—the secondary.

That allowed James Vandenberg and company to put up big numbers and 41 points against the defense.

This week, it's strength on strength and weakness on weakness.

Expect Penn State to get its yards on the ground, especially at the beginning of the game, but the offense will turn one-dimensional, which will favor Northwestern.

The matchup between the NU offense and the PSU defense will be fun to watch and it will be interesting to see if the Nittany Lions can stop the option attack that stifled the Illinois, Iowa and Michigan defenses for much of each those games.

Northwestern needs this win more than Penn State, and expect that Wildcats to end their slump, prevailing on Homecoming and on prime time national television against the Nittany Lions.

Score: Northwestern 24, Penn State 23


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